They’ll give you a great show even where little else will thrive
We’re all familiar with the gorgeous blooms of tall bearded irises, but far fewer gardeners grow their much smaller cousins, the dwarf bearded iris. Equally delightful, they flower earlier, from mid-April into May, and being much, much smaller, they’re ideal for planting in poor, dry soil alongside pathways and in gravel gardens where they won’t take up much room or get swamped by herbaceous partners. They’re also good for narrow borders beneath sunny windows where little else will thrive. Most reach no higher than 15cm (6in) tall, with all the colours and shades you come to expect from their bigger relatives with demure single colours, to jazzy, avant-garde combinations of electric-blue, golden-yellows, brooding purples and powerful reds, with multi-coloured petals and contrasting beards.
Dwarf bearded iris are developed from the diminutive European species I. pumila and other taller bearded iris, which introduced a kaleidoscope of colours, while retaining the compact habit. All are easy to grow and, being short, don’t need staking like some of their larger cousins. It’s important to make sure the small rhizomes get sufficient light in summer and don’t get swamped by herbaceous partners. They can be propagated like any other iris. Lift and divide in June, keeping the younger, more vigorous rhizomes and discarding older growth. Plant them so the rhizomes are exposed on the soil surface to get heat and light and they’ll flower much more reliably. Once you’re hooked, you’ll soon start collecting all the various forms!
These early-blossoming flowering quince shrubs shrubs create a real spectacle
Once the flowering quince, or chaenomeles, burst into bloom you know the gardening year is about to get into full swing. Colourful and reliable whatever the weather, these deciduous shrubs flower on bare stems from February, into March and beyond. The three species all come from the east. C. japonica comes from Japan, while C. speciosa and C. cathayensis come from China (C. speciosa is also found in Korea). Many of the varieties available have been developed from C. superba, a hybrid between C. speciosa and C. japonica. The bright, cupshaped flowers, which form at the base of older stems, come in a range of tones from bright scarlet, pink, salmon, apricot, pale yellow and, of course, white. After the flowers come oval to squat yellow-green fruits. Once ripe, these are best used to make jams and jellies, but can be cooked. The large-growing Cathay quince, C. cathayensis, has the biggest fruits of all, reaching 15cm (6in) across.
They grow in most soils and situations, even heavy clay in sun or partial shade. Once established, they need little care, but growth can become a unkempt and is best pruned to shape. After flowering, cut out all the thin, wispy branches to leave a more open structure composed of thicker shoots. Over-long growths can be cut back by about a third to reduce the height. You can also selectively remove shoots that are three to four years old to encourage new growths to form. Chaenomeles is also good for training up walls or fences, even those which are north or east facing. They’re susceptible to fireblight, so don’t grow them if this is already a serious problem.
Bring sparkle to dark winter days
It’s hard to imagine an iris flowering in the depths of winter, but the Algerian iris, Iris unguicularis, does just that! Although it’s a plant from Mediterranean shores, it’s far hardier than you might think, but it still needs a sheltered, well-drained spot, such as at the base of a south or west-facing wall, to do well.
A sunny spot by a front door, where its flowers can be admired, is ideal. The flowers are produced intermittently during breaks in the weather, and can also be taken indoors, where their beautiful markings, and honey-scent of varieties such as ‘Walter Butt’, can be fully appreciated. While the straight species is attractive, over the years a number of forms have been introduced from the wild, or selected from seed.
Previously known as I. stylosa, the iris is a clump-forming, evergreen perennial, spreading by means of congested rhizomes, clothed in narrow, upright or arching leaves. The flowers, produced from late autumn through to early spring, are produced from a succession of buds in shades of lilac through to blue-purple, often marked in the centre and honey-scented, with some varieties being far better perfumed than others.
They all prefer a poor soil that’s well drained, but not waterlogged. They need an open position, without competition from other plants. New plantings will take a year or two to settle in, so water in pot-grown plants two or three times if conditions are dry. Remove hidden snails before flowering. Clip off or pull away old foliage after flowering to tidy up the plants.
Want winter colour and scent?
Viburnum are one of those undersung, but extremely useful groups of shrubs, that have representatives performing at almost every time of year whether through flowers, foliage or fruit.
The winter flowering varieties are especially welcome when little else is around. They can be deciduous or evergreen, with flowers produced in dense clusters, studding bare branches, or in flat heads among leaves, often sweetly scented.
Although Viburnum botnatense 'Dawn' is the most familiar, its worth looking out for 'Charles Lamont', which has stronger pink tones. The diminutive 'Nanum' form of the normally tall V.Farreri is a useful spreading shrub for the smallest borders. All the deciduous forms lend themselves to be under planted or associated with early bulbs and perennials, such as hellebores and associated with other winter-flowering shrubs, such as mahonia.
Most viburnums are indifferent to soil as long as it's not soggy or too chalky. They will grow in sun or shade, but will flower better in sunlight. Most need little of no pruning save to keep them in shape. Do this just after flowering.
Enjoy bright berries and colourful foliage
Everyone recognises a holly bush, dressed in spiny leaves and studded with blood-red berries. But although our native Ilex aquifolium is the best-known, there are 600 species in the world and not all are evergreen or hardy. Because it’s so common, our native holly has mutated, or been bred by gardeners, to create dozens of kinds with different looks to suit every taste, smaller habits and with variegated and oddly shaped leaves and even yellow berries. Among the other species, the smaller, Asian Ilex crenata is useful because of its small leaves and dense growth, making it a good substitute for box.
Some hollies drop their leaves in autumn, so the scarlet berries stand out brightly and Ilex verticillata, although not a common garden plant, can be particularly spectacular in the winter landscape. Being tolerant of a wide range of soils and conditions, the common holly can be planted in any garden as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged. All are tolerant of pruning and they can be used as a hedge. Pruning in late summer will remove young growth and reveal the ripening berries. Although they’re tolerant of shade, growing in a brighter place will result in better flowering and more berries. Most hollies produce either male or female flowers so you need to plant a male near (but not next to) a female (or many females) to get berries. Remove any green stems on variegated plants as soon as you see them.
Vibrant foliage and bright berries make a dramatic autumn effect
Hardy and easy to grow, the larger euonymus are very different to the commoner evergreen species, such as E. fortunei, grown for ground cover. Their beauty is really revealed at this time of year, when most have striking autumn colour usually accompanied by curious angular fruit capsules that split to reveal brightly-coloured seeds. Few of the 130 species are commonly available and the most common is the European native spindle tree, E. europaeus. While other species also come from the Northern Hemisphere, the most ornamental species are from China.
Most are attractive at the back of large borders, with solidago, rudbeckias or Japanese anemones or dahlias in front, or they make attractive specimen plants in grass or at the front of shrub borders. All are hardy and not fussy about soils: most will grow even in difficult chalky soils. To obtain the best fruit production and autumn colour, plant in full sun. Most species have a dense, twiggy habit, but some of the slender growers may need help forming a strong leader if you want to train them as small trees.
Delicate, fragrant flowers to brighten up the darker months
The Japanese Camellia sasanqua is often overlooked but is a charming and robust species that has the unusual qualities of having small, fragrant flowers that open in late autumn, usually in October and November. Like all camellias, they’re ideal for growing in pots but their small leaves and bushy habit make them suitable as garden shrubs and even hedges. Many have attractive, bronzed young foliage and the flowers open over several months. Their glossy leaves make them attractive plants for borders throughout the year. These camellias prefer a sheltered spot and may struggle in very cold, exposed areas but usually thrive in urban gardens. But, unlike most camellias, they prefer a sunny site and are the best camellias for patio pots. They’re also less fussy about very acid soils and will succeed in neutral soils. Most are upright at first and light pruning or pinching out the shoot tips in early spring will keep the plants neat and compact. Give plants in the border a mulch in spring and a dressing of fertiliser suitable for azaleas and rhododendron, and feed potted plants with a soluble acid plant food once a week from April to September.
FACT: Leaves of Camellia sasanqua can be used for making tea and its seeds produce an oil used in hair tonics and for lighting.
Lovely and easy to grow, they provide astonishing autumn colour
Viburnums are shrubs from the Northern Hemisphere, grown for their attractive leaves, often scented flowers and showy berries. Few of the 150 species are grown in our gardens, but they do include some of our commonest shrubs such as evergreen V. tinus and the winter-flowering V. bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Most are hardy and can be used as specimen shrubs or screens.
The berries will attract fruit-eating birds and bring life to your garden. The evergreens are useful in shade and the deciduous kinds can give your garden rich autumn tones before the leaves drop. Plant the berried kinds with silver-barked birch and red-stemmed cornus. For a complete autumn display, grow a late clematis such as C. orientalis up them for extra colour and contrasting fluffy seed heads.
Viburnums are tolerant of a wide range of soil types, though chalky soils do not suit V. betulifolium. A bright spot is best for good berry production, especially of the deciduous types. Pruning is not necessary. Light pruning can be done in spring, though it may reduce flowering and berry production. For lots of berries, it’s best to plant more than one plant of each type to ensure pollination.
These hardy bulbs produce jewel-like blooms in early spring
Few gardeners plant many of the 75 species of the wild dwarf tulip, yet they make charming plants for pots, fronts of borders and rock gardens, where they usually form clumps and sometimes even seed themselves. Some of these diminutive tulips, which hail from the Mediterranean region and east into Asia, have been developed by nurseries to yield selected forms and hybrids. Most are small and dainty, with starry flowers in bold and bright colours, opening in warm weather to greet the sun. Plant them with other small bulbs such as chionodoxa and scillas to grow through aubrieta, arabis, campanulas and other low plants that will help protect petals from mud splashes. Put bulbs in a sunny, welldrained area in clumps of five or more for the best effect, some 8cm (3in) apart and 10cm (4in) deep. In heavy, clay soils, fork in some grit to improve drainage and use your favourite slugcontrol method to prevent flowers being nibbled in spring. There’s no need to lift bulbs every summer, just leave them to increase naturally until they get too crowded. A little high-potash fertiliser in spring will boost growth, then let them die down naturally after flowering.
Better known as red hot pokers, kniphofias are familiar to all gardeners with their clumps of narrow leaves and tall spikes of tubular flowers in firey shades. All are native to Africa, but in the wild they grow in cool, moist areas so are well suited to our gardens. Kniphobias flower from late spring right through to autumn and these later kinds are invaluable at this time of year, contrasting in shape and from from the clouds of asters and daisy flowers of rudbeckias and perennial sunflowers. The late varieties include the common red and orange colours and also some subtle tones that are useful to add late season zing. Most kniphofias are tough and easy to grow but do best in soils that are moist and well drained so they may struggle in very dry soils or wet clay. A sunny spot will encourage the best flowers but most will also grow in a partly shade spot, but flowering may not be quite as profuse. Cut off dead flower stems once blooms have faded to keep the plants neat and prevent unwanted seed formation. Most red hot pokers are hardy but in cold winters the evergreen types may benefit from a covering with fleece.
FACT: There are 7 species of Kniphofias in the wild and most are evergreen and there have been hundred of hybrids that have been raised, mostly to create easy-to-grow, long flowering plants.
Big, bold and sunny rudbeckias are designed to make you smile. Commonly called black-eyed Susans, these short-lived perennials are native to prairies of North America, where they grow in moist grasslands. We usually treat them as annuals because winter wetness and soggy soils kills them.
But they’re easy to grow from seed and flower quickly, making them perfect bedding plants or colourful components of a mixed border. Their bold, roughly hairy leaves make attractive rosettes in early summer before they start to bloom, with branched stems carrying many large, daisy-like flowers, usually yellow or gold with black, cone-shaped centres.
Breeders have developed red, bronze and other rustic tones. They usually start to bloom in August and continue to the first autumn frost, providing food for bees and butterflies. The taller varieties make excellent cut flowers. Perfect companions for dahlias and cannas in beds and among shrubs, their flowers will complement autumn leaf colours. Rudbeckias are among the hardiest bedding plants so they can be started early in spring but add Perlite or grit to the compost because they dislike overwatering as seedlings. Grow them in good light and harden them off outside in April.
These easy-care spreaders give a profusion of bright blooms
Relatives of persicarias include some nasty weeds, such as the infamous Japanese knotweed.
But this large group of mostly herbaceous plants from Europe and Asia also includes really
useful garden plants, tolerant of moist and heavy soils, which bring attractive foliage and a
profusion of flowers to the garden during summer and autumn.
The most eye-catching can be mixed in herbaceous borders with day lilies, phlox and late-flowering asters, while the toughest, such as ‘Superba’, make ideal ground cover. They have
suffered from name changes and are often listed as polygonums.
Rich, moist soil will help you get the best from persicarias. Most will bloom best if they get sun
for at least half the day, though a few, especially P. campanulata, survive in tough, dry areas. A few are invasive but the most popular form neat clumps that can be divided in autumn or spring when dormant. They rarely need deadheading or staking, and are free from pests and diseases, although mildew can attack plants grown in dry soils.
The decorative clouds of showy flowers are an autumn bonus
Giants of the grass world, second only to bamboos in many gardens, miscanthus are bold and useful plants that are at their best in autumn when most erupt into clouds of showy flowers. They are mostly native to China and Japan and are deciduous, turning colourful bronze and yellow shades in autumn after they bloom. Many of the decorative forms are derived from Miscanthus sinensis, although the towering M. sacchariflorus is sometimes grown for screening.
The smaller kinds fit neatly into borders and their fountain-like growth contrasts well with taller herbaceous plants such as phlox, asters, anemones and rudbeckias, which flower in autumn. The taller kinds are best grown among shrubs such as hydrangeas, caryopteris, buddleias and hibiscus.
Keep them happy
Miscanthus thrive in most soils as long as they are not wet in winter, but all grow best in an open, sunny place. It’s best to cut them down in early spring before the stems get too battered by winds and before new growth emerges from the base. Once established, they do not need staking or other hard work but they may need dividing after about ve years. Do this in spring, just as growth starts. The smaller kinds can also be successfully grown as statement plants in pots.
Beautiful, long-lasting flowers offer a splash of fresh colour this autumn.
Hesperantha, also known as schizostylis and kaffir lilies, are like a cross between a gladiolus and crocus with their clumps of grassy leaves and slender stems of starry flowers. In fact, they’re distantly related to both and come from South Africa, the original home of most gladioli.
The plants have a creeping rootstock and form dense clumps of foliage that is more or less evergreen, but Hesperantha are valued most for their beautiful flowers that open over many weeks and that are a splash of fresh colour in the autumn. Once planted they can be left alone for many years. They make perfect cut flowers for the house too!
Keeping Hesperanthas happy
- Use moist soil and plant in a sunny spot to grow Hesperantha
- If you have dry soil grow them on the patio in a pot.
- If they become crowded in the border, split them and then replant in spring.
FACT: The original name of schizostylis came from the split style in the centre of the flower, which looks like three threads of cotton.
Find out the six best Hesperantha in our latest issue of Garden News, 17th of September, in stores now!
They’ll give you a profusion of small flowers late in the season...
What makes abelia's such valuable shrubs is that their small, but profuse, flowers are produced in late summer, long after most other shrubs have stopped blooming.
There are about 30 species of pretty summer and autumn-flowering abelia, native to Asia and Mexico. They can be evergreen or deciduous, but the evergreens tend to be rather tender. All have clusters of small, tubular, pastel-coloured flowers that are often fragrant. These blooms have large, showy sepals that are usually red or bronze. The most popular is A. grandiflora, a hybrid which, usefully, combines the hardiness of the deciduous Chinese A. chinensis and the rather tender but evergreen Mexican A. floribunda.
Abelias flower and grow best in well-drained soils, in full sun. Although A. grandiflora is hardy in most areas and is a good choice for coastal gardens, it’s worth planting it in sheltered places in colder areas. It makes a fine wall shrub and the mass of small, fragrant flowers attract bees and butterflies.
The smaller and less vigorous variegated forms are ideal for pots on the patio and can be planted at the front of borders. Plants can be lightly pruned after flowering, although this will remove the colourful sepals so it’s best to wait until spring to cut out a few of the older stems and tidy up the shrub. If they get very overgrown, they can be pruned hard in spring, but this will reduce flowering for a year.
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Exotic passiflora bring a touch of sultry luxury to any garden
Passion flowers (passiflora) are among the loveliest of climbers for a sunny wall or fence. Vigorous, evergreen climbers, they cling to their supports with tendrils and have intricately-shaped flowers in a wide range of colours. Most are native of South or Central America and are tropical, so need frost protection in winter. A few are tough enough to survive outside in a sheltered spot, just check their labels to see if they are hardy for your area.
They flower from summer to autumn and some have edible fruits, though the true passion fruit (P. edulis) is too tender to grow outside in the UK. The common blue passion flower (P. caerulea) also has edible fruits but they have little flavour.
Keep them happy
Those passion flowers that are not totally hardy can be grown in pots, up trellis or wicker cones and placed in a sunny spot in summer, then moved to a greenhouse or conservatory in winter. Or grow them in a warm conservatory or greenhouse all year. Outside, hardier types can be planted against a south or west-facing wall. Plant in poor or well-drained soil to encourage flowering for the best results.
Passion flowers bloom on new growth so trim them in spring, when you can see how much damage has been done in winter. Put a loose mulch over the roots in autumn so that shoots grow if the top growth is killed. In pots, feed every week with a high potash fertiliser.
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These beautiful plants produce colourful blooms almost year round
A summer garden classic, pelargoniums are in the same family as geraniums, but unlike their hardy, herbaceous cousins, they are succulent and shrubby. The majority have fragrant leaves, though most are grown for their bright flowers. There is huge variety among them with a wide range of flower colours, except blue, and many have beautiful, variegated leaves. They are drought-resistant and make very forgiving patio and windowsill plants. Many will bloom all year round if kept away from frost.
Keep them happy
Pelargoniums love the sun and dislike being over-watered and over-fed. If they’re planted in rich soil they have a tendency to grow vigorously and not flower very well, but this may not be a problem if you plant variegated varieties. Double-flowered varieties are best in a sheltered spot because the dense flowers can collect water and rot. Pinch out regularly to make them compact and use these for cuttings. Cuttings root easily this time of year and young plants can be kept on the windowsill to plant out next year.
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Showy flower heads on tall stems will make an impact in your garden!
Eupatoriums are big, bold, leafy plants that make an impact in the garden with their tall stems, coarse leaves and showy heads of tiny flowers, usually in shades of pink and white. The most popular are now often called eutrochium. They are found throughout North America and Europe. Their flat heads of small flowers are popular with butterflies and bees and they bloom in late summer, sitting at the sides and backs of borders, framing its shorter bedfellows. Some, such as E. sordidum, make useful cut flowers.
Keep them happy!
Eupatoriums are best planted in rich, moist soils and the biggest and most robust are suitable for boggy or wild areas. They can be late to shoot in spring and can be divided then, though the crowns are rather woody and difficult to prise apart. Give them plenty of room to grow because they become large and may swamp smaller plants.
They combine well with other late summer plants such as miscanthus, tall asters, helianthus and heleniums. In autumn, leave the stems for birds to feast on the seeds and cut the dead stems down in winter or early spring.
Its common name, boneset, derives from the plant’s traditional use to treat dengue fever, or ‘breakbone fever’.
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